This exhibition entitled Portrait of the Artist is the first to focus on the images of artists from within the Royal Collection. Self-portraits by world-renowned artists including Rembrandt, Rubens, Artemisia Gentileschi, Lucian Freud and David Hockney but also includes images of artists by their friends, fellow artists and pupils. One of the highlights of the exhibition is the most reliable surviving likeness of Leonardo da Vinci by his student, Francesco Melzi.
Portrait of the Artist contains over 300 objects, including paintings, drawings, prints, photographs and decorative arts ranging in date from the fifteenth to the twenty-first century.
The exhibition provides evidence that images of artists increasingly appear from the fifteenth century onwards and was linked how artists were perceived in society during the Renaissance. Rather than being perceived as a talented craftsman, artists began to see self-portraiture as a way to demonstrate their talents and a way for self-promotion.
The first objects in the exhibition consider how self-portraits and portraits of the artist family and friends were crucial for the artist to practice their skills. Often this drawings were not intended to be seen by a wide audience and were often given away. Self portraits in this section by Rubens, David Hockney and Lucien Freud illustrate how these informal drawings can often expose characteristics of the artists that are not exposed in a formal painting.
From these drawings, artist would sometimes undertake a full self-portrait painting to show to potential patrons or customers. How artists portrayed themselves was crucial to appeal to a specific audience. One of the first celebrity British artists was Joshua Reynolds who quickly understood the benefits of self promotion.
Many artists would include in their portraits, friends or family members. In the late eighteenth century, children and animals were often included the pictures to provide evidence of the artist in a family setting.
Perhaps not surprisingly, artists painted each other either as an homage to the other artist or as a visual record of their friendship. Rubens portrait of his pupil Van Dyck provides evidence of their mutual respect and friendship.
The fame of certain artists led to portraits of artists being collected from the sixteenth century onwards, Charles I was one of the first people to actively collect and display portraits of artists. By the late 1630s he owned at least twelve portraits of artists, three of which were hung together in his private Breakfast Chamber at Whitehall Palace. Rarely a member of the Royal Family will paint a portrait of an artist, an example in the exhibition is the Duke of Edinburgh’s portrait of artist Edward Seago and Seago’s portrait of the Duke.
Gradually artists began to include their self-portrait in a number of ways which affirmed their status. Sometimes the picture may include the artist painting within a landscape or a studio. Landseer even manages to include his dogs into his self-portrait.
Increasingly it becomes common for artists to use a self-portrait as a way to explore different roles using clothes, props and setting. Some artists took this even further by including themselves in multi-figure narrative scenes. During the Renaissance, several artists included their image within an altarpiece and would sometimes include the person responsible for the commission.
One common theme from the Renaissance was artists who presented themselves as outsiders to society, the image of artists has the tortured genius added to their mystique. Artemisia Gentileschi‘s unusual self-portrait is perhaps an indication of the difficulty of being a female artist in a period dominated by male artists.
This fascinating and enjoyable exhibition illustrates the many aspects of self-portraiture and how the role of the artist changed considerably after the Renaissance. Many artists became celebrities in their own time and like today’s celebrities were very particular about their image in front and behind the picture. It is this complexity of motives and inspiration for self portraits that provide many of the themes in the exhibition.
Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended
For more information or book tickets, visit the Royal Collection website here
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